Authors: John McPhee

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American essayist, biographer, and sportswriter

Author Works


A Sense of Where You Are, 1965

The Headmaster, 1966

Oranges, 1967

The Pine Barrens, 1968

A Roomful of Hovings, and Other Profiles, 1968

Levels of the Game, 1969

The Crofter and the Laird, 1970

Encounters with the Archdruid, 1971

The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed, 1973

The Curve of Binding Energy, 1974

The Survival of the Bark Canoe, 1975

The John McPhee Reader, 1976 (William L. Howarth, editor)

Coming into the Country, 1977

Giving Good Weight, 1979

Basin and Range, 1981

In Suspect Terrain, 1983

Heirs of General Practice, 1984

Table of Contents, 1985

Rising from the Plains, 1986

The Control of Nature, 1989

Looking for a Ship, 1990

Pieces of the Frame, 1992

Assembling California, 1993

The Ransom of Russian Art, 1994

The Second John McPhee Reader, 1996 (edited by Patricia Strachan)

Irons in the Fire, 1997

Annals of the Former World, 1998

The Founding Fish, 2002

Edited Texts:

The Creative Arts at Princeton: Vignettes by Students, 1996

The Princeton Anthology of Writing: Favorite Pieces by the Ferris/McGraw Writers at Princeton University, 2001 (with Carol Rigolot)


John Angus McPhee is among the twentieth century’s most acute observers of the natural world, but he cannot be classified as a “nature writer.” His range is wide, from biographies and portraits of athletes, leaders of conservation movements, and educators to books about geology, physics, new inventions, and ordinary people doing ordinary jobs. Born and reared in Princeton, New Jersey, he gravitated toward the university there and graduated in 1953. By 1957 he was a staff writer for Time. In 1965 he became a staff member of and a regular contributor of nonfiction to The New Yorker, where much of his work first appeared.{$I[AN]9810001077}{$I[A]McPhee, John[MacPhee, John]}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;McPhee, John[MacPhee, John]}{$I[tim]1931;McPhee, John[MacPhee, John]}

McPhee’s early books centered on sports, education, and New Jersey. A Sense of Where You Are, the piece which established him as a contributor to The New Yorker, is about the Princeton career of basketball star Bill Bradley, who later became a United States senator; Levels of the Game looks closely at a single tennis match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner. The Headmaster is a portrait of the famous principal of Deerfield Academy, Frank Boyden, who ran the school in idiosyncratic fashion for sixty-eight years. The Pine Barrens looks at the history and people of an isolated backwater in New Jersey that is physically close but spiritually and economically distant from the urban world of the northeastern corridor.

These books convey a sense of the breadth of McPhee’s interests and the diversity of his subjects. They share very little except McPhee’s interest in and skill at conveying unusual people and settings, as well as his skill at precise and detailed description. He is a conscientious researcher, spending time observing his subjects and listening to anyone about whom he intends to write and anyone else who knows about his subject. He returns again and again, if necessary, to be sure that he has all the necessary information.

His classic study of Alaska, Coming into the Country, for example, is based on months spent in the largest of the states, especially in the remote community of Eagle and in hazardous trips through the remote regions of the interior. The book is a combination of acute observations of the natural world and its wildlife, the humans who have chosen to live in a hostile environment, and the social and economic forces that will determine its future. At the same time, Coming into the Country, like McPhee’s other books, provides the reader with insights into the mind and spirit of the writer. McPhee is an objective observer, but he is not detached from his subjects; he does not hide behind his own objectivity.

In the 1980’s, McPhee began to write on the geology of the United States. The books about geology deal with different sections of the United States, roughly following the line of Interstate Highway 80 as it crosses the country from New Jersey to the West. In each of the books McPhee includes oblique portraits of the people who instruct him in the geology of particular areas, gives insights into the social and economic forces at work in those areas, and describes geological formations and processes in terms available to the general reader.

McPhee, like the geologists who teach him, is interested in mountains and unusual geologic formations; the flatlands of Ohio and the prairies of the Middle West are geologically of little interest. Basin and Range is a study of the geology of the Great Basin of the West, the desert areas of Nevada and Utah surrounded by mountains. It is an area of abandoned gold mines and few people, and McPhee finds those people as fascinating as the history of the land they inhabit. In Suspect Terrain finds him crossing the eastern part of the United States along Interstate 80. He is in the company of a geologist who stops frequently at cuts made by the highway builders to inspect aspects of the terrain revealed by the dynamite and the bulldozers. McPhee uses the woman’s somewhat prickly character to convey the fascination of geology and to make the sometimes difficult material more accessible to the reader. Rising from the Plains incorporates the story of a woman who went to Wyoming in the nineteenth century to teach school and later became the mother of the geologist who instructs McPhee in the ways of the Rocky Mountains. In the fourth volume in this series, Assembling California, McPhee again seeks expert help, this time in an effort to understand plate tectonics. Not surprisingly, McPhee manages to explain this complex theory in terms which almost anyone can comprehend.

In The Control of Nature, McPhee demonstrates his continuing interest in the environment by presenting dramatic accounts of three attempts by human beings to thwart nature. However, McPhee’s curiosity seems limitless. Looking for a Ship (published in The New Yorker in 1990 in three parts) is about working on a freighter, and The Ransom of Russian Art is an exciting story about a virtuous smuggler, who saw to it that art works by Russian dissidents found their way to freedom. The Founding Fish is a study of the shad and the people who fish it.

McPhee’s range and interests have broadened as he has developed as a writer. Always an accurate and precise observer, he has covered broader subjects as he has become more assured in his craft. The focus of some of his earlier books has widened to include historical and social forces, while he has never lost interest in the individual. McPhee is a deceptively brilliant stylist: always clear, never condescending, evocative and sometimes moving in his descriptions.

BibliographyChapman, David W. “Form and Meaning: Writing the Counterpoint Essay.” Journal of Advanced Composition 11 (Winter, 1991). An excellent study of McPhee’s technique.Clark, Joanne K. “The Writings of John Angus McPhee: A Selected Bibliography.” Bulletin of Bibliography 38 (January-March, 1981). Any study of John McPhee should begin here.Espey, David. “The Wilds of New Jersey: John McPhee as Travel Writer.” In Temperamental Journeys: Essays on the Modern Literature of Travel, edited by Michael Kowalewski. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992. Examines McPhee’s work from a very different perspective.Lounsberry, Barbara. The Art of Fact: Contemporary Artists of Nonfiction. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990. Includes a discussion of McPhee’s works.Pearson, Michael. John McPhee. New York: Twayne, 1997. A book-length study of McPhee and his writing, including biography and assessment of individual works. Contains bibliographies of both primary and secondary sources.Roundy, Jack. “Crafting Fact: Formal Devices in the Prose of John McPhee.” In Literary Nonfiction: Theory, Criticism, Pedagogy, edited by Chris Anderson. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989. A good rhetorical study.Stull, James N. Literary Selves: Autobiography and Contemporary American Nonfiction. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. Includes a discussion of McPhee’s works.Tilden, Norma. “Stratigraphies: Writing a Suspect Terrain.” Biography 25 (Winter, 2002). Analyzes McPhee’s explorations of geology and the theory of plate tectonics in Annals of the Former World.Weltzein, O. Alan, and Susan N. Maher, eds. Coming into McPhee Country: John McPhee and the Art of Literary Nonfiction. Logan: University of Utah Press, 2003. A collection of essays assessing McPhee’s writing from a number of perspectives. A useful collection of scholarly work.
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